Not yet a novelist

It doesn’t happen often, that I am left speechless. Even if it’s only a curse I can usually muster a couple of words.

Being unable to write is a new experience. Never have I stared blankly at a bare sheet of paper for ten minutes and failed to find a single word worth writing.

But on Wednesday  that’s what happened. Unnerving.

I’ve sometimes been called a novelist. The definition of a novel is a story invented by the writer – a tale about imaginary characters and events. In other words, fiction. The person who writes a novel is a novelist.

All my books so far have been non-fiction. They are about actual events, people and places. They are not novels, and I am not a novelist. I’m a writer, or author. However it is increasingly common to hear all writers referred to as novelists. Does it really matter except to the pedants?

But I have meandered away from the point.

Our guest speaker at the May literary luncheon hosted by Charroux Literary Festival was the effervescent Alison Morton, author of the Roma Nova novels. After lunch Alison held  a workshop on ‘character and setting.’ The first part of the exercise was to create a character. In ten minutes.

While the 17 other guests bent their heads and wrote diligently, my mind became a vacuum. The minutes ticked by. Alison called: “You have five minutes left!”

I felt a wave of panic. This is how Masterchef contestants must feel as the clock ticks down and their panna cotta hasn’t set. I quickly scribbled down the most clichéd character imaginable, and as quickly scribbled them out. When our ten minutes was over, my character was non-existent. It’s the hardest piece of writing I’ve never done. I could feel sweat trickling down my back, and my throat had dried up.

Things looked up when we went on to the second element of the exercise,  creating a setting. From nowhere came a muse who settled on my shoulder and helped squeeze out a couple of hundred words.

The final part of the exercise was to swap all our characters and settings around anonymously, and create a story from them. Pity the poor person who was landed with my non-character.

I landed on my feet, as the character and setting, although devised by two different people, could have been written for each other, and I regained my writing mojo, for the first time actually writing fiction. And loving it. Something I have never believed I am capable of. That doesn’t mean I’ve become a novelist – 200 words do not a novel make, but I can see a glimmer of light beckoning from the end of a previously unknown tunnel.

Since then I have been creating characters in my head, and without the pressure of the ticking clock have found it addictive and fascinating.

Alison is – forgive the cliché – a prolific author with a huge fan base, and has written five novels in the Roma Nova series in three years. She also blogs energetically and offers advice and help for writers. I bought her book The 500 Word Writing Buddy which contains  no-nonsense, succinct advice delivered with a generous dollop of humour. It has motivated me to hope that one day I will deserve the title of novelist.


First, however, I must finish the current non-fiction book I am working on.:)








A thoroughly beastly morning

I posted this three years ago. Nothing much has changed, except the black cat now slumbers in eternal rest beneath a climbing rose.

Susie Kelly - Writer

The beasting started at first light this morning. I was vaguely aware of our ancient and scraggy, but still active black cat, leaping onto my stomach. That’s quite normal, and being the skinny little fellow that he is, no discomfort. Then a tickle arrived on my face. I thought it was his whiskers, and brushed it away. Then it came back again, and I opened my eyes. A fly! As many times as I brushed it away, it returned. I stuck one leg out of the duvet, and immediately it landed there. It landed on my shoulder. I pulled the duvet up over myself, despite the heat, until only the tip of my nose was exposed. The fly buzzed into my hair. I landed a substantial thump on it, and it fell stunned onto the pillow, from where it found itself flying (!) through the air to the floor and…

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Things that go clack, fizz, erk and yikes in the night

WordPress is being very difficult. For several days it has been crashing every time I try to write a new blog post, so I’ve temporarily given up. Instead, here’s a post from 2009, when we were camping.

Susie Kelly - Writer

It is midnight. From the far distance comes the faint murmur of motorway traffic, and from closer, the yipping of a fox.

I need a wee, and remember too that I did not brush my teeth earlier. The torch has new batteries, cheap ones from Lidl. It glows weakly, as if already exhausted, and we have not yet started on the 50 metre trek to the sanitary block.  I zip myself out of the tent and follow the faint haze past the guy ropes, across the path, over the playground and down the rustic steps to the building. The night is eerily quiet and dark; there is no sign of human life.

As I close the lavatory door, a loud, rapid clacking noise approaches, making me jump. It sounds like angry castanets. It stops outside my cubicle, and then slams the adjacent door, which emits an agonised screech like all…

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Our little visitors

It’s been a busy week, little-visitorwise.

Firstly there were the ants milling around on the doorstep, and two days later mysteriously appearing in their hundreds on the pile of clean laundry on the bed.

Then there was the earwig that I found dozing on my pillow (!) two days ago.

Next I found a shield bug clinging to a lampshade.


By Pudding4brains – Own work, Public Domain

And then there was the bee. It was lying on the floor in the hall looking very tired and barely able to keep itself upright. I administered first aid, first with sugar water, and then with honey, but it didn’t respond, so I put it outside near the rain-battered remains of the grape hyacinths. As soon as it scented the flowers the bee began hauling itself up the stem to try to reach them, but kept falling back. I picked it up and held it while it probed into the flowers. It took quite a long time before it started to be able to hold on for itself, moving from one bloom to another until it had its fill. I checked on it throughout the afternoon and it seemed to have regained some of its strength. Later in the evening when I went to look for it, it had disappeared.

Pity it’s not a better photo, but it does show it sticking its proboscis into the flower.


That evening I undressed for bed, put my foot down and let out a yelp as what felt like a red hot needle went through my toe. There, on my sock, was the bee. I have always understood that once a bee stings, it will die, as the sting is attached to its stomach, so I was (a) cursing at the fire in my toe and (b) thinking how I had wasted most of an afternoon trying to rescue the bee, and ended up inadvertently killing it. I put the sock with the bee still attached outside the bedroom door.

Next morning, the bee was at the bottom of the stairs, still rather groggy, but definitely alive. So I repeated the grape hyacinth treatment, and the last I saw it was flying away. It left a souvenir behind it – my toe is still itching!

We’ve also been catching mice regularly in the humane trap beneath the sink. Whether it’s the same two who keep returning, or another group, I don’t know, but every day there are at least two.

I know that some people have a horror of insects, but they generally don’t bother me. It may be because growing up in Kenya you soon got used to them. If you had dogs or cats – and this was long before there were any effective deterrents – not only would they host fleas and ticks, but the fleas would get into the crevices on the floor, and it was quite normal to find them on your legs, or notice them on somebody else’s legs. You learned to pick them off and squish them between your thumb nails. Ticks were another matter, sickening creatures bloated with blood; they either found themselves ground into oblivion by a stone, or flushed down the loo.

If you didn’t find ants in the sugar bowl, you’d suspect there was something wrong with the sugar. They were quite harmless, unlike the ghastly safari ants whose powerful pincers can give an excruciating bite.

During the rainy season male termites – also called flying ants – would appear in swarms. People rushed to collect them in 5 gallon drums – they are regarded as a delicacy and apparently taste like chicken fried in butter. They used to swirl to the ground beneath the outside light on my house, where they would be gobbled up by the toads who waited for them, gorging themselves until they were too fat to move, and sitting with wings poking out of their mouths.

We always sifted our flour very carefully to remove weevils. You banged your boots and shoes and turned them upside down to evict any spiders or scorpions that may have taken refuge inside them.

‘Nairobi eye,’ is an attractive small beetle with alternating black and amber segments.  Whilst they don’t go around like mosquitoes looking for somebody to sting, they do secrete a highly toxic acid that can lead to severe skin blistering.


Image by Elsen Karstad @

Mango flies laid their eggs on laundry spread out to dry in the sun. If those eggs rubbed off onto your skin, they would penetrate and a couple of weeks later a disgusting maggot (mango worm) would wriggle its way out through your skin.

Spiders – we won’t go there – eeek!

These creatures were a fact of life that you quickly learned to live with, so I’m seldom perturbed by insect life here in south-west France apart from the dreaded harvest mites. Too small to see with the naked eye, these minuscule monsters seek out those places on your body that you would least wish to be seen scratching, but scratch you must. The itching is beyond description. And I’m still not very good with spiders, and TOH usually has to remove them.

Luckily we have no conifers on our property, nor in our surroundings, so we are safe from the processionary caterpillars that are such a danger to dogs and cats.

While I am loathe to kill anything, there are exceptions – fleas, mosquitoes, ticks and all the biting flies are on my hit list as they can transmit diseases to the dogs (and us), but the rest of them are either relocated or ignored.

Why kill anything if you don’t need to?





Festival Notes: an interview with Travel Writer Susie Kelly by the Charroux Litfest team

Apologies for the erratic line-spacing in this post – WordPress is throwing a wobbly and refuses to let me edit. I’ll keep trying, though. :) 


Charroux LitFest: Can you tell me a bit about what you are writing at the moment?

Last year we went on a safari to Kenya, and just now I’m writing about that.

As well as visiting game parks all over the country we also had an opportunity to see different aspects of life in Kenya today, from supreme luxury to extreme poverty, and to meet people living and working at both ends of the scale and in between.

I had a set idea in advance of how the book would evolve, but it all changed during our visit and I’m trying to adjust my original concept to take into account those changes that have taken place, and my feelings about them, forty years after I left the country. It’s a digression from my usual style, and something I haven’t completely mastered so far. It’s still a work in progress.

Charroux LitFest: Can you tell me a bit about your writing/working day e.g. place/time/treats/special mementos you have in your writing space?

I’m a slow starter, more of an owl than a lark, and begin my day with coffee while reading emails, checking on Facebook and doing the Guardian quick crossword on-line. Then I deal with paperwork, shopping, cooking – all those chores for which a wife would be really useful, although my husband Terry does a lot to help.

My office is a small room facing onto the garden, where we have set up a bird-feeding table. During the winter I make up large bowls of food for them, melting vegetable fat and adding cooked pasta, sunflower seeds and mixed grains, which go into the fridge to set. These very large pieces allow many small birds to comfortably feed at the same time, without risk of catching their claws in the nylon netting on those small balls you can buy. They have also attracted several great spotted woodpeckers this year, so rather a lot of my time has been spent watching them. While I’m doing so, thoughts, phrases and ideas are running through my mind, so although I’m not physically writing, it’s all going on in my head.

Once I start writing the least interruption can kill my train of thought, so I wait until the dogs have settled down for the night and Terry is reading, and the telephone has stopped ringing. When I get going I’ll carry on for as long as the words flow, so am often still writing at midnight.

Try as I may to keep my working space neat and tidy, it is invariably cluttered with paperwork, photos, empty cups, rubber bands, pens and notebooks, but the one thing that is always there is a Swiss cheese plant on my desk. She is called Ethel and is my confidante, guardian of my secrets and a good listener.


Charroux LitFest: Of all the places you have visited in your books, where do you want to return to most and why?


Kenya, where I grew up and which I wrote about in my memoir, is where in my heart I will always think of as home and where I would choose to live under the right circumstances.

However, I love France, where we have lived for over twenty years. Having travelled around and across it, there are so many places I’d like to go back to, but if I had to choose, it would be one of the first places we visited on our trip in the camping car which I wrote about in Travels with Tinkerbelle, the Pointe du Van in Brittany, on a summer day.


Pointe du Van, Finisterre, Brittany

Although I am not a lover of the sea, there is something about that tip of land that is so majestic and other-wordly. On a perfect day the shades of blue of the sea blend seamlessly into the blue of sky, so you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins, and it feels as if you are standing on the very edge of the world. But during the winter, storms can whip that same sea into a terrifying cauldron of towering grey waves. Nature here is at her most unspoilt and invincible.

The Brittany coastline, for me, is the most beautiful natural area of France. I’d like to go back there.

Charroux LitFest: What Novelists /novels have influenced you in your reading life, and why:how?

That’s a hard one! I read so much in several genres by so many writers.

As far as travel writing goes, Bill Bryson has to be my number one favourite. Paul Theroux is up there too. Both of them always make me laugh. Although I enjoy most travel literature, I enjoy it far more when it involves mishaps and nothing goes according to plan. That certainly encourages me when writing about our travels, because they invariably go wrong from day one.

For thrillers, Gerald Seymour is my pick. The lines between good and evil are blurred, with no stereotypical goodies and baddies; each character is a human being with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. His story lines are gripping and from his career as a front line journalist in war zones around the world, he knows exactly what he’s talking about. Something that instantly puts me off a book is when there is a factual error, and it is something I am very conscious of when writing. I check, double-check and check my facts again to try to ensure they are correct. If in doubt, I’d sooner leave something out.

Historical fiction – Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir, C J Sansom and newcomer Tony Riches are among my favourites in this genre. History was one of my least favourite subjects at school, it was all dry facts and dates, whereas well-written historical fiction brings it to life. I’ve learned far more about the evolution of Europe than I ever did from lessons at school, and doing so sparked my interest in learning about the history of those places we visit.

My greatest regret is that if I live to be 150, there still won’t be time to read all the books I’d like to. As well as those from the mainstream publishers, there is so much quality writing being published now by small presses and people who choose to self-publish. These are often overlooked, but are worth investigating because there is some really, really great writing to be found, particularly memoirs and biographies of ‘ordinary’ people who have lived extraordinary lives and often prove that fact is indeed stranger than fiction..

For enthusiastic readers who like to explore beyond the book club choices and newspaper reviews, I’d recommend signing up to one of the services like BookBub, which hand pick books in your chosen genres and send you daily emails when they are on special offer – often free, or reduced to 99 cts. It is quick and easy way to discover new writers.

Charroux LitFest: Other than writing, what is your idea of your perfect day here in South West France?

The temperature is exactly 24ºC. There are tiny smudges of cloud high up in the blueness of the sky. A warm, gentle breeze tinkles the wind chimes.

We breakfast in the garden, beside the pond, in the shade of the tri-colour maple. The lawn is perfectly mowed, the wisteria in bloom, the scent of roses in the air, and there’s not a weed to be seen. A jug of freshly-squeezed orange juice, a pot of strong coffee, a small jug of cream and a plate of buttery croissants and black cherry jam are laid out on the table. Our dogs lie beside us enjoying the sunshine. There are no flies.

All around the birds are singing, bees burrow into the hearts of the lavender, and I smile knowing somebody is cleaning the house for me.

After breakfast I shower and pamper myself for half an hour, then flick through my extensive wardrobe to choose something to wear. All the clothes are size 10, and they all fit comfortably.

We take the dogs for a long walk through the fields, and then it is almost mid-day, time to meet friends for lunch at our favourite restaurant, Le Bouton d’Or, a fifteen minute stroll from our house. Chef Francis welcomes us with his permanent smile and joke, and serves a superb 4-course meal with a bottle of crisp, light rose wine.

During the afternoon we retire to the garden to read and doze, with the dogs beside us. They take us for another walk before supper, which is served in the garden. We have a simple, light meal – Vichyssoise followed by fresh Gariguette strawberries, and a glass of something fizzy, probably a Vouvray.

We sit in the warm evening until the stars came out, and the nightingales begin to sing. It has been a perfect day.

CLFT: Thank you Susie

The second Charroux Literary Festival will take place from 24 – 26 August 2017 in the historic town of Charroux in south-west France. Author lunches and other  literary events will take place throughout the months leading up to the festival. To find out more like us on  or contact us at

Dotting the eyes


© Susie Kelly

Poitiers market, Sunday 13th March. I was very taken with this handsome dog, particularly the golden dots above his eyes.

I asked his owner – who was three sheets to the wind and in a genial mood – for his permission before taking the photo. It is against the law in France to photograph a person without their consent. While it is not illegal to photograph their animals, it is wiser and polite to ask, if the owner is present. Generally I have found people are happy to agree, but don’t take it for granted.






Amazon Takes Aim At Scammers But Hits Authors

How scammers are cheating authors. Reblogged from David Gaughran

David Gaughran

kuAmazon is an extremely innovative company – and usually quite responsive to self-publisher’s concerns – but sometimes it gets things very wrong too.

Today is one of those times.

I’ve received several reports from writers threatened with having books removed from sale, and heard even more worrying stories from others who had their titles actually removed from the Kindle Store without notice.

What were these authors guilty of? What crime did they commit for Amazon to adopt such heavy handed treatment? Something completely innocuous: the Table of Contents was at the rear of their books instead of at the front.

Yep, that’s it.

We’ll get to what might be the root cause of this crackdown in a moment, but Amazon is claiming that having a TOC in the end-matter instead of the front-matter is a breach of the (ever-changing, 100+ pages) Kindle Publishing Guidelines (PDF). Amazon says that rear TOCs result in…

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